May 12, 2005

A Few Good Questions

Sometimes it only takes a few good questions to unearth the wisdom in the room. At a volunteer leadership conference for a national association, I was asked to share a few questions that are essential to any considerations about structure for an organization or a work team.

Inspired by the thinking of former VISA CEO Dee Hock and his Chaordic Alliance, here are the three I said get at the core of the issue:

1. Why do we exist and what are the results we are trying to achieve for this project or our organization? In other words, what is our work (purpose, mission, vision, success indicators)?

2. What do we want to ensure/aspire to (core values or principles) as we go about doing that work?

3. How might we organize ourselves to honor what we have identified in #1 and #2?

The questions need to be answered in this order and with great thoughtfulness.

Without a clear understanding of the business we are in or the future we are trying to create, we cannot accomplish anything. Once that is clear, the values and principles (think organizational culture) we want to guide how we do our work become an important consideration. We are then able to address the organizational structure questions about how to best approach the work in alignment with our desired values.

Organizations and project teams too frequently begin with question #3. This often leads to defensiveness and protectionist mindsets about "the way we've always done it around here." When you have great clarity about the first two questions, a broader sense of how you might organized yourself generally becomes possible.

A fourth bonus question I would offer is:

Have we created sufficient opportunities to leverage the talent available to us and provided enough opportunities for people to act on what they care most about?

While this question might seem most suited to nonprofit organizations and their relationship with members and volunteers, for-profit entities should consider it as well. The Gallup organization has well documented the significant lack of engagement many employees feel in their work environment and the costs associated with that disengagement.


IdeaMapper said...

Thank you for sharing your thoughts and wisdom. The questions in this post may be perfect for a retreat I will be facilitating in the next month or so.

I found your blog thru Dan Pink's blog. I feel the same discomfort you describe with how limiting our occupational noun descriptors can be (Dec. 2006). I am just emerging from my own "sabbatical", reinventing myself from "engineer" or "techie" to someone who uses visual tools to help individuals and groups solve problems and make decisions. Thanks for sharing the experiences of your journey.

IdeaMapper said...

I also wanted to share with you an idea I found on 800-ceo-read on "Breakthrough Questions" (
The questions are of the form "What would have to be true for us to [achieve some outrageous stretch goal]?" It seems to me that they would be powerful for inspiring creative ideas that people would be fired up about implementing.